Maybe it’s the bricks. Maybe it’s the milk. Maybe it’s simply that the 2.5-mile track is a place where dreams can be realized or crushed in a split second.
Whatever “it” is, every year it captures the imaginations of the 33 drivers who compete for the Borg-Warner Trophy. And they all have this in common: At one point in their lives, something drew their attention to the Indianapolis 500. More than a few trace their earliest memory of the race to the same moment in time, even when they were miles apart.
Here, in their starting order for the 98th running of the Indy 500, drivers share those memories.
1. Ed Carpenter. The native Hoosier, set to start on the pole for second consecutive time, remembers 1989. “I remember watching Rick Mears’s qualifying run with my brother and cousin,” he says.
2. James Hinchcliffe. Jacques Villeneuve (starting 27th in this year’s race) and his 1995 win is the origin of at least one driver’s first recollection of the 500, specifically fellow Canadian Hinchcliffe: “I distinctly remember that car on the cool-down lap,” Hinchcliffe says, “Jacques’s fist in the air and it was the first time I watched a race that I actually retained anything. A bit of nationalistic pride, I guess.”
3. Will Power. Remembers his dad telling him about Formula 1 drivers who came to Indianapolis and said they didn’t like it because it was too fast.
4. Helio Castroneves. The three-time 500 champ and native of Brazil had his first taste of “it” in 1989, watching fellow countryman Emerson Fittipaldi and Al Unser Junior’s late-race duel.
5. Simon Pagenaud. The Frenchman refers to Villeneuve’s 1995 win as being one of his first memories of the race.
6. Marco Andretti. Remembers when Colombian Roberto Guerrero won the pole, then proceeded to wreck during the parade laps.
Andretti, the fifth family member to compete in the race, also remembers hiding in the trunk of a car to sneak into the Speedway’s infield when the age limit was 18.
7. Carlos Munoz. Juan Pablo Montoya’s last Indy 500 in 2000, when he won by seven seconds over 1996 champion Buddy Lazier (33rd), the only other driver from that 2000 race competing in 2014 and the oldest in the field.
8. Josef Newgarden. First came to the track in 2007 at the age of 17. The Nashville native describes watching the field of 33 roaring around the track as “daunting.” “I wasn’t that young, but young enough [for it] to still spook me a little bit,” Newgarden says.
9. JR Hildebrand. The runner-up in 2011 was at home in California watching Eddie Cheever win in 1998. “I grew up on the West Coast so we went to the Champ Car race in Laguna Seca and did all that kind of stuff,” says Hildrebrand. “But there wasn’t a lot of IndyCar oval-racing out there, and so it was always on TV when I was a kid.”
10. Juan Pablo Montoya. The ’92 500.
11. Scott Dixon. The 1995 Villeneuve win.
12. Kurt Busch. “My earliest memories are watching Al Junior win. And as a kid I watched Emerson Fittipaldi. That whole gang in the early ‘90s was what I grew up watching first on Memorial Day, and now I’m part of that. So it’s very special, and I always turned the channel to watch that NASCAR race at the end of the night, so I hope everybody else does too.”
13. Jack Hawksworth. The track enraptured the Englishman when he first saw IMS while testing a Star Mazda car on the road course in 2011.
14. Justin Wilson. Nigel Mansell was the defending Formula 1 champion when he moved to Champ Car (CART) in 1993, finishing third in his only Indianapolis 500 start before going on to win the season championship. The Englishman introduced the race to a generation of international drivers, including Britain’s Wilson, who was 14 when Mansell came to the United States.
15. Mikhail Aleshin. Hard to find the 500 on TV in Russia. (Aleshin is the first driver from that country to qualify for the race.)
16. Tony Kanaan. Like Castroneves, the defending 500 champ (and a veteran of 12) caught the bug watching “Emo” and “Al Junior” in 1989. “Being a Brazilian,” says Kanann, “I was cheering for Emerson.”
17. Sebastien Bourdais. Mansell’s 1993 run.
18. Oriol Servia. The lone driver representing Spain would watch the race live on TV in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s. “They would always show the race live,” he says. “Unfortunately, now that I’m racing here they don’t. To me it seemed like such a faraway race and so different to what I was used to growing up. It captivated me always.”
19. Ryan Hunter-Reay. “My earliest memory is watching the race as a kid on the rug there in front of the TV with my parents, playing with little toy Indy cars. Just like my kid is doing now.”
20. Graham Rahal. “I was coming here as a kid, sitting up in the suite with [David] Letterman. I used to have every car and driver memorized, and I don’t even think I have that nowadays, so that’s pretty impressive for being, like, three years old.”
21. Carlos Huertas. Fellow Columbian Montoya’s 2000 win.
22. Pippa Mann. One of nine women to have competed in the race, Mann was introduced to IndyCar through Sarah Fisher, the successor to Janet Guthrie and Lyn St. James.
23. Takuma Sato. Remembers watching the race on TV as a 7- or 8-year-old, before Formula 1 started broadcasting in Japan.
24. Alex Tagliani. First set foot on the Speedway grounds in 2009 as a driver. “[I] never wanted to be a spectator,” he says. “I thought that if I saw what the Indy 500 was and really never had the opportunity to race in it, I would have always regretted it or missed it. I didn’t want to know what it was. I didn’t want to see what it was. I just wanted to basically see it if I had a chance to drive in it.”
25. Townsend Bell. One of 11 Americans in the field this year and 10 years old when he first experienced what the 500 had to offer, in 1986. “I sat right across from the scoring pylon in that second row of seats up there, and I don’t think I breathed for three-and-a half-hours,” Bell says. “It rained on race day, and I came back a week later from California to watch it happen.”
26. Charlie Kimball. “I came out here while I was racing Skip Barber out at IRP (Indianapolis Raceway Park). I stood in Turn One and watched the first guy go through [it] flat and thought there was no way he’s coming out the other side, and now I do it sort of all the time. Even on a qualifying run, you turn in and kind of hope, just a little bit, you come out the other side.”
27. Jacques Villeneuve. “My earliest memory is the race where it was really cold and everyone was spinning out on restarts,” he says, referring to the 1992 race with 13 cautions, 12 finishing cars, and the closest margin of victory in 500 history.
28. James Davison. The 500 captivated him as a boy in Australia, when he looked through a coffee-table book about the race’s history at home.
29. Martin Plowman. The ’92 500.
30. Ryan Briscoe. Was driving in Monaco in 2002 when, he remembers, he watched Castroneves race his way to the second of three Indy 500 titles.
31. Sage Karam. Youngest of the 33 drivers at the age of 19 and a potential future face of the sport, he first came to the Speedway with his dad when he was nine. “I remember walking through the tunnel and looking up and being able to see the Pagoda, the scoring pylon, and the Yard of Bricks for the first time,” he says, “then just looking at my dad and telling him I wanted to win this race one day.”
32. Sebastian Saavedra. Fellow Columbian Montoya’s 2000 win.
33. Buddy Lazier. “I remember listening to the race in the mountains where I grew up in the really late ‘60s. I kind of remember listening to it when I was 3 or 4 years old. I was born in 1967. Then through the 1970s, [watching] the ABC Wide World of Sports versions.”
See exclusive driver photos in the Faces of IndyCar gallery, by May Madness track insider Kate Shoup.